North Carolina’s agriculture and biotechnology industries are a natural fit.

Using the tools of biotech, N.C. farmers can produce more efficient, higher-yielding crops and help grow each industry in the process.

The agricultural biotechnology (AgBio) industry is now poised to tackle some of the state’s biggest economic challenges, which is why the North Carolina Biotechnology Center recently hosted an event for a group of roughly 30 people in North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Agricultural Leadership Development Program.

Members in the two-year program are being prepared for future leadership in North Carolina’s agriculture industry. The event came after the group met with industry leaders across the state and toured local AgBio company facilities.

The event was held just a couple of weeks ahead of the Agricultural Biotechnology Summit 2012, co-sponsored by NCBiotech, which will take place October 10 at NCSU.

Industry Will Shape N.C.’s Future

Gwyn Riddick, MBA, gave an introduction that focused on the importance of the agriculture industry to North Carolina’s economy.

Riddick was named to NCBiotech’s newly created position of Vice President of Agricultural Biotechnology in December 2009, to help launch an initiative from NCBiotech and partners statewide to grow the state’s agricultural economy to $100 billion during the next 10 years utilizing the science of biotechnology.

Agriculture, Riddick said, is North Carolina’s oldest and biggest industry and “a long-term endeavor that benefits all of North Carolina.”

North Carolina currently has 89 AgBio companies for a total of just over 4,000 employees. Of the six major international AgBio companies worldwide, three are headquartered in the state and two more have facilities here.

The importance of growing this industry, Riddick explained, is that nine billion people are expected to inhabit earth by 2050. The simple logistics of accommodating that large a population present several challenges, most notably, food production.

According to Riddick, agriculture is able to meet this challenge. By utilizing the science of biotechnology, farmers will be able to grow higher-yielding, more efficient crops, such as corn, cotton and soybeans.

Genetically engineered and genetically modified crops have been popular with farmers because they allow their crops to produce higher yields at lower costs, making them the “most quickly-adopted technology in agriculture since we’ve been living,” according to Riddick.

But AgBio is about much more than the genetic engineering and genetic modification that is so often in the news. AgBio is about “new crops and new use for existing crops,” Riddick said.

Al Kriz, executive director of the Biotechnology Crops Commercialization Center (BTCC), talked about how AgBio can deliver value to the grower and multiple benefits to consumers.

The BTCC’s core function is to “commercialize new feed crops and specialty fruit and vegetables,” said Kriz.

Driven by solving the food dilemmas of the next four or five decades, the BTCC is currently underway on a number of projects to benefit the agriculture industry using the tools of biotech. One of the primary goals of these projects, Kriz said, is to reduce the number of calories that come into the state by boat or train.

According to Kriz, animal production in North Carolina requires about 300 million bushels of corn per year to feed livestock. But corn grain production in the state yields less than 100 million bushels, requiring state farmers to import more than 200 million bushels from other states.

Companies Find Solutions to Drought, Other Setbacks

Four N.C. AgBio companies were on hand to discuss new technologies being developed at their respective companies that have the potential to not only solve the food problems in the long term, but grow the agriculture industry in the state almost immediately.

Joe Clarke, senior research scientist at Syngenta Biotechnology, talked about his company’s Agrisure Artesian project.

The technology improves water and nutrient uptake, allowing crops to maintain normal growth and development longer into a stress event, such as drought. Clarke said this allows crops “to achieve greater yield stability in years of inconsistent rainfall.”

Using scientifically selected genes, Syngenta scientists are able to produce crops that provide season-long drought protection, maximizing yields across all environments.

“The process reveals more about why the plant performs as it does in response to targeted stress,” such as drought, Clarke said. The process also “harnesses numerous genes, each with distinctly different roles to enable broad-based improvements, benefits and enhancements.”

This technology provides multi-gene solutions for “improvement by building on what the plant already does well,” Clarke said.

Syngenta’s Agrisure Artesian technology will be commercially available in 2013.

AgBio Has Diverse Applications

Grassroots Biotechnology is another company developing better crops for agriculture and biofuel markets by researching what they call root trait optimization.

According to COO Doug Eisner, the company is “trying to improve roots to make better crops.”

By determining the best root systems for different environments, the company is able produce crops with root systems that protect against pests and weather adverse conditions better.

Strengthening the root system, Eisner said, allows the plant to focus its energy on steady growth, producing higher yields.

Though it may sound like genetic modification, Eisner assured the audience otherwise. Instead, he said, the company focuses on advanced breeding, “using the tools of biotech to inform our breeding strategy.”

Giles Shih, President of BioResource International, spoke about his company’s goal to “produce strong, healthy chickens.”

Recent spikes in feed prices due to drought and higher demand have made it significantly more expensive to raise livestock. The company has responded by producing “feed enzymes used to improve nutritional value of feed,” said Shih.

In August, the company was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies.

Benefits Not Limited to Food Crops

The advantages of AgBio are not limited to food crops, however. One company has found a way to produce flu vaccines using tobacco plants.

David Henry, director of industrial process at Medicago, spoke about his company’s unique approach to pharmaceutical vaccine production.

The process involves taking a bacterium and modifying it with the gene sequence of the flu virus. The bacterium is then infected into a tobacco plant, which produces a gene response. The resulting proteins are then extracted and purified to make vaccines.

The same principle used in immunization, “fooling the body into thinking it has been infected with flu,” said Henry, is what drives the company’s ability to produce vaccines in tobacco plants.

The real advantage to making plant-based vaccines, Henry explained, is that it takes just 19 days from gene sequencing until the first batch of vaccines are available for distribution. Traditional vaccines take between six and eight months to produce.

“If we can catch it on the upswing, we, in essence, eliminate that problem,” said Henry.

(C) N.C. Biotceh Center